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CVA for COVID-19: Listen to people and act on what they say

11 June 2020 — By Louisa Seferis – Senior Programme Manager at Ground Truth Solutions

Not everyone will be personally affected by the COVID-19 health crisis, but nearly every household will feel its effects economically. For many people in humanitarian crises, particularly those at the margins of society, the economic impact of COVID-19 will be greater and longer-lasting than the health consequences. They take health risks to maintain an income and feed their families, inadvertently undermining efforts to stop the virus from spreading. In Iraq, respondents to our phone survey say they cannot abide by preventative measures such as self-isolation because they need to return to work. The Cash Working Group members we surveyed in Maiduguri, Nigeria this month say the communities they serve struggle more with staying at home than with physical distancing or hygiene precautions.

Cash and voucher assistance (CVA) programmes are an important tool in addressing these consequences. Efforts are underway to ensure that vulnerable people in humanitarian crises have access to well-designed CVA – social protection responses are on the rise, and key groups like Markets in Crisis have encouraged organisations to support rather than undermine local market systems. But unless communities at risk are consulted regularly and appropriately, it will be impossible to understand whether CVA is successfully addressing people’s needs.

Yet the current situation presents a fundamental challenge: people predominantly prefer face-to-face interaction with humanitarian organisations.[1] The participation and feedback mechanisms carefully developed over the years rely heavily on personal contact. Aid providers can continue to engage with CVA recipients directly in contexts where communities are well-connected and infrastructure is strong, but many recipients will quickly tire of phone calls and megaphone announcements. In other places, people affected by humanitarian crises – particularly women and other groups less likely to be digitally connected – will be increasingly difficult to reach.

Humanitarian organisations across the globe are open to new ways of collaborating to provide more CVA at scale. Incorporating recipients’ perspectives on CVA may feel like another competing priority in the face of the immense new operational challenges posed by the pandemic. But there are ways to promote people centred CVA that don’t require diverting resources or putting people at further risk.

Prioritise preferences – or leverage local support

People’s preferences and perceptions in a cash-based response have never been more important, because they will determine the local consequences of the global economic crisis. Businesses may close out of necessity or refuse certain customers on the basis of rumours and unfounded discrimination. Even where markets are functioning, if people feel unsafe, they may find other – often risky – ways to meet their needs.

Although the COVID-19 crisis is constantly referred to as “unprecedented,” the humanitarian system has collectively spent years working with communities that receive aid through CVA. These initiatives offer insight into people’s priorities and how they prefer to receive aid, even if it is currently difficult to consult CVA recipients directly and at scale. For example, cash recipients have already signalled that they prefer reliable, larger transfers in round numbers, which are easier to manage and to cash out. Such adaptations of CVA cycles are increasingly common in mitigating the economic impact of COVID-19, as the Donor Cash Forum advocated and UNHCR implemented in Somalia.

However, there is an inherent tension between delivering aid via people’s known, preferred modalities and introducing digital payments to scale up CVA and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. This is nothing new, but the need for physical distancing and limiting liquidity removes vulnerable families even further from the support they need. Pre-pandemic, we spoke with CVA recipients who were unable to read or use mobile technology and who relied on trusted people within their families or communities to navigate new payment systems, such as mobile money. Those networks, however informal, may be accessible remotely and could be an opportunity in the current crisis to reach and support those who are unable to participate in remote consultations.

Listen proactively

Reactive feedback mechanisms, such as hotlines or post-distribution monitoring, continue to be essential to CVA programming during the COVID-19 response. We can also use the momentum of community data collection to better understand perceptions and to redesign responses based on feedback wherever possible. Some CVA actors are already using the extensive data they collect to answer crucial questions about people’s priorities during the pandemic.

Every data collection exercise is an opportunity to take a snapshot of people’s perceived priorities and risks, as well as to solicit their feedback. Nevertheless, assessments are not the same as communication or participation. At best, data collection provides an opportunity to reflect people’s perspectives and a platform to amplify their voices. At worst, it extracts information without a clear link between respondents’ priorities and aid design. Linking these assessments to CVA design and broader accountability is essential to getting the full picture of how people’s perceptions can inform the response.

One way to ensure coherence is to build on consultations that may not be cash-specific, but still offer insight into what people think about the virus and which networks they trust – such as Africa’s Voices’ COVID-19 diagnostic. Another way is to double down on communication channels, providing consistent messages and opportunities for people to voice their opinions via as many avenues as possible – expanding beyond hotlines and complaint boxes to channels like radio or small gatherings with physical distancing.

User or human-centred interviews are also an important tool for proactive listening. These one-on-one conversations may not be representative of an entire population, but they offer insight into the lived experience of particular groups and can humanise the statistics. We can start by identifying the factors that shape people’s access to aid (gender, vulnerabilities, access constraints, displacement status, age) and digging deeper into their different situations. These conversations can then shape and refine quantitative data, better informing CVA responses. For instance, coverage and exclusion are always a risk, so proactively addressing new barriers – both physical and digital – and how they affect people differently can give us a head start. Syrian refugees in northern Iraq have widespread access to phones, but it was difficult to reach women in our latest phone survey. Conversations with women can orient programme decisions such as payment systems and transfer amounts, which can then be validated through quantitative surveys.

Towards a people-centred response

Humanitarians promote CVA because it is often the best modality for meeting individual needs in an ever-changing environment. We assume that CVA, when done well, is inherently people centred. But it is important to recognise the massive pressure on humanitarian organisations, both local and international, to maintain essential services, protect the most vulnerable, and ensure that CVA offsets the devastating economic effects of the pandemic – all while safeguarding staff and aid recipients from the spread of the virus. In the current context, people-centred aid seems nice in theory, but difficult in practice.

And yet accountability in any response should be about balancing operational constraints with people’s preferences, while maintaining open communication channels and dialogue wherever possible. Some of the greatest challenges of this dual health and economic crisis existed long before the pandemic, such as ensuring access to reliable income, or connectivity or liquidity in remote areas. People living in humanitarian crises know these challenges all too well and can offer insights into how to prioritise cash-based responses. During this pandemic, transparency and problem-solving together with communities affected by crisis are crucial components of people centred CVA, and are ultimately essential to more positive economic outcomes.

[1] Of the 4,167 people surveyed across 7 countries in 2018–2019, 63% preferred to make complaints face-to-face (see the GTS summary here).



(Photo: Poul Henning Nielsen / Danish Red Cross)